14 June, 2024


Alienated At Home: Jewish And Tamil Experience

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

What follows is consequent of a remark made by (Sinhalese) Mr Bradman Weerakoon on 20 June 2014 in the course of a eulogy on his close friend of many years, (Tamil) Mr Duleepkumar. It was, I felt, both eulogy and elegy: “His last years were painful, mentally more than physically, as he took on himself the sad plight of what was happening to his people […] in the North and East.” As Literature teaches us, collective misfortune is finally experienced by individual, sentient, human beings; in turn, an individual life can give us insight into a wider, and therefore impersonal, anonymous, tragedy: as it has been noted, the noun ‘Literature’ can also be seen as a verb.

In an email communication to me Mr Weerakoon added: “He cut himself from his former friends because he could not understand their indifference to what was happening to fellow citizens.” The last phrase, “fellow citizens” is significant. Writing on Adrian Wijemanne, I observed that if the Sinhalese had been oppressed, Adrian Wijemanne would have fought as courageously, clearly and eloquently as he had fought for the Tamils. Fundamentally, the struggle is not on behalf of a group but for fellow citizens; going further, for the human-rights of all, irrespective of skin-colour, religion, language, class or sex. Words from Keats’ ‘Fall of Hyperion’ come to mind: “those to whom the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest”. (For “rest” one could substitute words such as be “indifferent”, “uncaring” or “inactive”.)

A friend now settled in Perth, Australia, observed that injustice, when it is prolonged, comes to be seen and accepted as normal. Time transforms the abnormal into what comes to be seen as normal: for example, the Chinese occupation of Tibet. New roads and buildings; social and cultural activities camouflage fundamental injustice and present the appearance of normality, indeed of progress. Mr Duleepkumar declined to be deceived.

My friend, like Mr Duleepkumar, lamented the large number of “Sinhalese friends from our past who so enriched our lives but, when it came to the crunch, disappointed us”. The disappointment was because (1) they had succumbed to prevailing hegemonic ideas, abandoning earlier principles and ideals. They had become ‘racists’, though still claiming to be of the Left: a socialist does not countenance hierarchy (be it of class, ‘race’, sex, or religion), oppression and exploitation. (2) Or they were indifferent.  (3) Or, if they were concerned, they were silent and inactive. With reference to the last, Martin Luther King sadly said that the silence of friends causes more pain than the words of enemies.

Prior to the Holocaust, the Jews formed a very small percentage of the German and Austrian population. Most of them were integrated and made a contribution to the intellectual and cultural, the economic and political, life of these countries. Freud who was forced to flee, had been awarded the Goethe Prize for his contribution to German literary culture. Going back further in time, Jewish Walter Rathenau was Foreign Minister. The list of those Jews who made a contribution to Germany and Austria in all the different fields of human endeavour is very long indeed, and most impressive. Many volunteered, fought for Germany during World War 1, and paid the ultimate price. Most of Germany’s Jews were fully integrated.   Integration means identification with: they were Germans who happened to be Jewish. (As I have written elsewhere, as a schoolboy and at university, all my friends were Sinhalese: they were not Sinhalese friends but friends who, apart from far more important characteristics, happened to be Sinhalese. The last had as much significance then as the fact that some are left-handed; and some like football more than cricket.) Integration is a frame that includes and incorporates while preserving difference, for example, as under a federal constitution: see, for example, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Switzerland, the USA etc.

Integration can be contrasted with assimilation. The latter, unless carried out over many years, and obliterating every sign of an earlier group affiliation, does not buy acceptance and protection. In this connection, I cite from Page 19 of my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2:

Professor Yasmine Gooneratne (born Bandaranayake; a niece of S W R D Bandaranayake) suggests in her Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka that the family name may have come from a Tamil officer, Neela Perumal, made high priest of the Temple of the god Saman, and in 1454 ordered to take the name of Nayaka Pandaram, that is, Chief Record Keeper. With time, the name changed to Pandara Nayaka, and thence to the present Bandaranayake. Similarly, there is evidence that the Salagama, Durava and Karava castes were originally Tamil, from South India, and that “Hettiarachige” derives from “chief of the Chettis”. (The chettis are described as “a Tamil trading caste”.) Again, one wonders, “So what? Is it important?” Yes, it is important because we make it important. It is not the fact, but the value we attach to it, since we are the source of significance.

In 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain, under The Alhambra Decree, expelled all Jews from Spain, including those who, either by conviction, calculation or force had become Christian: the term of insult for Jewish converts was marronos, meaning pig. (By coincidence, 1492 also marks another calamity, far greater in scope and permanent in effect, namely, the discovery of America by Columbus, and the subsequent plunder, dispossession and death of the native populations.)

“Denial” in ordinary usage means asserting that a statement or allegation is not factual but in psychology, as traced by Sigmund Freud, it is a mechanism in which a person faced with an uncomfortable or unpleasant fact, either rejects it completely or minimises, denying the degree of seriousness. Having lived in Germany for centuries, being integrated and having made a positive contribution, many Jews simply did not see the grave and horrible threat of Nazism, that is, until it was all too late. Leading a peaceful life, with friends in the wider community, many were unable to accept reality and flee the land of their birth. Altering words from The Bible (St Mark 4:12), seeing, they did not perceive; hearing, they were unable to understand. (When I visited my father in Colombo in 1981, he spoke with great concern about the growing hostility against the Tamils, but some of my relations made light of it. Father died in 1982 and, unlike mother, was spared the horror of Black July ’83.) It’s a tragic irony that the drive for “purity” can lead to appallingly cruel acts of “impurity”.

Similar to the Jews, the Tamils were integrated, and saw themselves as “Ceylonese”. I again quote from Public Writings, Volume 2:

“It must be borne in mind that it did not always appear to be a situation of enmity and conflict. There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”.  When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese. “In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of his party, he received no support for it from the Tamils”: K M De Silva, p. 513. In the 1930s, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected federalism. (They looked not look to Tamil Nadu but to Gandhi and Nehru.) They persuaded almost all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Sinhala as a compulsory subject. As A E Jayasuriya observed, “At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders”: see, D Nesiah, Tamil Nationalism, p. 12.  I recall that when C. Suntheralingam of Vavuniya argued for a separate (Tamil) state in the early 1950s, he was indulgently laughed at by most Tamils who saw it as the eccentricity of a brilliant mind. In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.”

H. A. J. Hulugalle, (1899 – 1981) records that Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, fought untiringly for the Sinhalese Buddhists leaders victimised by British imperialism: they had “no more sincere and eloquent pleader of their cause” (Selected Journalism, 2010, p. 151). Hulugalle describes another Tamil, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, as the father of the Ceylon nationalist movement (page 149). Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, in the course of a Prize-Day speech delivered on July 30th 1914 at Mahinda College, spoke up for the Sinhalese, and for Buddhism. The latter, he lamented, had been “at a very low ebb”:

“It had been abandoned by men of light and leading, especially among the English-educated classes. Those who remained Buddhists were too often ashamed to acknowledge it.

In the Courts I was sometimes saddened to see in the witness box Buddhists pretending to be Christians, and taking their oaths on the Bible. I am not a Buddhist or a Theosophist; but I was much pleased to give Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott such help as I could in their mission to restore the influence and prestige of Buddhism in the Island. Great as the obligation of Ceylon is to them, we must not forget the debt due to the masses of the Sinhalese people who clung to the national religion, however little they understood its beauty and greatness, or were able to justify their faith – clung to it through generations in spite of the disabilities and, in former times, even persecution…

It is a strange anomaly that the Buddhists though they constitute about two-thirds of the island’s populations and are not lacking in men of ability and culture, have for years past been without a single representative in the Legislative Council.”

Another Tamil who championed Buddhism and Sinhalese culture was the internationally renowned Ananda Coomaraswamy. I cite from the Sunday Island of Colombo, 22 January 2012 on the re-naming of  Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha as Nelum Pokuna Mawatha:

“Christmas Humphreys (British Q.C. and later Judge) well known to Sri Lankan Buddhists as the author of the Penguin paperback titled “Buddhism” (published in 1951 which sold over a million copies) has rated Coomaraswamy’s work ‘Buddha and the gospel of Buddhism’(1916) as “the finest single volume on Buddhism yet published”. Having purchased a copy when he was 17, Humphreys has cited this work as the reason which led him to embrace Buddhism […] Although three-fourths of Sri Lankans follow the teachings of Buddha who has preached ‘puja cha pujaniyaanan (honour those worthy of honour ) it is a pity if the name of Ananda Coomaraswamy – the first Sri Lankan to bring international fame to our country is to be forgotten thus from national recognition.”

Tamils were forced to see themselves not as Sri Lankans who by accident of birth were Tamil but as second-class aliens. What mattered was not character and contribution but a Sinhalese identity. Mr. Duleepkumar was one of those who had fondly (“fondly” also in the Shakespearean sense of “foolishly”) believed in a Sri Lanka of inclusion, decency and justice. Mr Bradman Weerakoon in an email message to me wrote: “Duleep was a ‘ pluralist’ to the core. As a small boy himself learning Sinhala with us, he would memorize “Guttila Kavya” practicing the way the pundits said ‘Guttn sila’ with a sibilant thrown in for greater effect. I still remember it with admiration.”

Duleepkumar felt betrayed; was disillusioned, and deeply, deeply, hurt. The exile is one who, voluntarily or enforced, leaves home to live a stranger among strangers but Duleepkumar felt that the home he had known, loved and worked for, had been taken away from him. He, like those Jews, was made to feel an alien in what once had been home. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) wrote his own epitaph, and I use words from it as an epitaph for Mr Duleepkumar: Deep indignation [at injustice] can now no longer “lacerate” his heart.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    If someone asked me where the turbaned Tamil high castes got it wrong, I’d say it was at pre-preemption.

    I have traced this problem back in history. It stops in the eve of April 1st 1935 when Dhonomore commission recommendations were realised.

    White Apartheid South Africa did not hand over power to the blacks claiming “Majoritism” will marginalize them and hurt their collective interests.

    There is a saying in some circles. If someone really wishes for catastrophy that is what they will end up with. One subconsciously drives towards this fate even though that is not where the ship is heading. The whites eventually had to yield power to the majority.

    A few Tamils attempted to do the same. It was an attempt at preemption of marginalization by majority Sinhala and majority Tamil low castes. It was an attempt at preemption even though such eventuality was no where in the horizon. The flawed thinking results in exactly the fate Tamil high castes were trying to prevent.

  • 9

    What a great article compared to verbose yet substance lacking, boot-kissing articles of Dayan Jayathilake. And he cant seem to stop writing the barrage of useless articles. Alas, no end in sight he is throwing one after the other, making us so intellectually tired. Dear editors pls ask great writers like Mr Sarvan to write more and DJ less. Thank you for this great article that stimulates our brain cells. After reading this I cant help Thinking that, the fate of our dear friends who happened to be Muslims looks eerily similar and unfortunately that shameful history repeats it self. Apparently the kind of Sri Lankan we dream today did exist the has been going down since Bandaaranayake. MR is taking it to the next level. Pretty sad.

  • 8

    Aren’t Douglas Devananda, Thondaman and late Kadiragarmer Tamils….

    How many Palestinians in Israeli Govt?.

    Or has Netanyahu appointed at least Vellala Palestinians as Chief Ministers in areas where Palestininans live ?.

    Do Hamas members, supporters or activists allowed in the University in Haifa?.

    Did the Srilankan Air Force obliterate Noroncholi and cut off power to Vellala Territory in Jaffna?.

    • 8

      K.A Sumanasekera

      “Aren’t Douglas Devananda, Thondaman and late Kadiragarmer Tamils….”

      They were/are Tamil speaking Demelas whereas you are a genetic sharing Sinhala speaking Demela.

      Whats the difference? Nothing actually. Both self destructive stupid people.

      Jayamaha Wellala (poet) was a founder member of Hela Havula racist Sinhalese literary organization. Was a Sinhala speaking Wellala?

  • 5

    K A Sumansekera (LEELA) you ask

    “Did the Srilankan Air Force obliterate Noroncholi and cut off power to Vellala Territory in Jaffna?.”

    Yes they did in August 1990 when they aerial bombed the Chunnakam Power station and as a result there was no electricity in Jaffna from 1990 -1996!

    Please know your facts and then talk Vellala Sumanasekera!

    • 2

      Are you in a Time Warp, Mr P Lover?

    • 3

      You expect Leela to know the facts? what a joke?


  • 5

    ” Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, fought untiringly for the Sinhalese Buddhists leaders victimised by British imperialism “

    No he didn’t. As a loyal Sri Lankan he fought for other Sri Lankans, his fellow citizens, victimised by the British, irrespective of religion, ethnicity etc., a characteristic that is totally lacking in some ‘Sri Lankan’ Tamils of today.

    The British and the Americans showed their generosity, as ONLY they can by gifting somebody else’s land to a 3rd party who had absolutely no right to it. The said 3rd party was unwanted in the whole of Europe, and this was seen as the best way to be rid of them. The price was paid by the Palestinians and soon will be by other Arabs whose lands are also on the radar for occupation.

    Self-delusion and self-alienation are common characteristics among some Tamils today.

  • 3


    History presented with clarity.Easily,the best essay,I have read on the subject.A must reading for Dr.Subramaniam Swamy!
    In fact,the present day Karawe,Salagama[Hali]and Durawe castes migrated from SouthIndia to this country between the 14th and 17th centuries AD.according to Prof.KM De Silva the doyen of Srilankan History.
    The irony of it is that the present crisis began with a descendant of Neela Perumal

  • 1

    Jews have their homeland like Sinhalese.

    It is Palestinians and Tamils who don’t have a nation of their own.

    • 3

      Moronic statement, Jews didn’t have a place at all, they belonged to so many terrorist organizations and they were scattered all over the world and they were clever intelligent and hard working who helped their community.They became very powerful in the west. The Americans and the British helped them settle in the lands of the Palestine and Palestinians looked after the jews.When the jews became very powerful with the help of the west they stole the land from the Palestinans, pushed them to a corner and made them 3rd class citizens also they grabbed the land from Egypt and Lebanon.
      Can this happen in Srilanka in 50+ years .
      Excuse my poor style of writing.

  • 2

    ” lamented the large number of “Sinhalese friends from our past who so enriched our lives but, when it came to the crunch, disappointed us”.

    I have had quite a few such Tamil ‘friends’ from the past too. It is the usual human experience.

  • 3

    The gem hidden in this brilliantly written essay, the percentage of Buddhist population in SL at the time. It seems to consist just 66% at max compared to present day over 70%. Most likely the so called elite Christians at the time must have converted themselves back to being Buddhists for political gains in post independent SL.

    It cannot be attributed only to the population growth because number of kids per family has gone down significantly and majority of the huge families( at the time) didn’t survive due to lack of proper medical services/epidemics(Malaria). Which raises reasonable statistical doubts about the legitimacy of the bogey cries coming from the GoSL’s supremacist mouth pieces and BBS robed thugs that Sinhala Buddist is in the verge of extinction when the numbers tell otherwise. We can perhaps call it irony about the fact that the destruction came down upon Ceylonese who were happened to be Tamils brought upon them by the decadent of Neela Perumal. Similarly foundation stone for the wipe-out of Sri lankans who happened to be Muslims is set off by MR and Gota who share Malay(muslim) ancestry. One must expose these lies refute those with numbers.

  • 1

    It is always an intellectual treat to read Prof. Charles Sarvan Ponnuthurai, who despite, being torn away from his beloved Motherland – apparently by the emerging lunacy of majoritarianism – continues to love Sri Lanka and her people immensely. It is good there are many
    such men and women – Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher, Muslim and other – spread throughout the world fated to flee Buddhist Fundamentalism that came to dominate the political landscape (1952/1956 onwards) It is this single feature that destroyed the unity and cohesion of this once fine nation that came into being after the advent of the Dutch/British. It is so unfortunate the learning and the brilliance of this teacher, that should have rightfully belonged to our own students, has been denied to them.

    R. Varathan

  • 3

    thanks mr.charles. i wish to add a few more. now we are having 15 national universities. ananda kumarasamy and p.ramanathan brothers were in the forefront for the establishment of the uni. of ceylon in 1942. justice akbar also contributed a lot.pl. refer to the article on srilankan university by g.malasekara in education in ceylon, centenary vol, 1968.it was prof.p.chandrasegaram who wrote the first comprehensive analysis of policies regarding higher education in ceylon (MA thesis london university). anada kumarasamy’s work on sinhala medival art needs further analysis.
    i also wish to point out the indian origin plantation workers contribution to the development of the plantation economy during the past several decades which helped to sustain the welfare state providing free education and health facilities. majority sinhalese refused to work in the estates for good reasons.even now mulim and other women bring in 60percent of the billions of dollars remitted from west asia. all these are stated very briefly.

  • 5

    This article is all about another tamil showing his Tribalism.

    Writer does not talk anything about thirty years of tamil cruelty towards other sri lankans.

    Writer does not acknowledge that there were sinhala people who supported Tamils every possible way before the things went really sour.

    He is talking only tribal feelings.

    Has Tamils ever acknowledged that they did something wrong ?

    They always accuse the Sinhala people, Sinhala govt, Sinhala soldiers. that is the story always.

  • 3

    The article is good and proper and all,but in the end,it is about Sinahla-Vellhala persons extolling the virtues of Tamil-Vellhala persons, and lamenting about how the masses in desperation, got in the way.

    Truth is, the masses and their problems were ignored, but when Gosl decided to give the masses some rights, then all Vellaha coziness got thrown out with the bucket. Vellhalas became divided and Thamil Vehallas tried to draw a border.

    Thamil masses didn’t care a jot about who was running the show, and what language and script was used. Or even what the exact temples were. But when Thamil-merchants(set up with Tamil- Vellha money) tried to set up business all over the Island, their untouchables did a marvelous job of minting money for their bosses.

    Sinhalese govias who hadn’t a clue about minting money from egalitarian structure, got jealous and started attacking Thamil merchants.

    And so, that’s how the story started.

  • 1

    “Many a Tamil had/has felt betrayed; was disillusioned, and deeply, deeply, hurt”. The first known was perhaps Sir P. Arunachalam an intellectual and nationalist who was one of the first to advocate a Sri Lankan nation.Bensen

  • 1

    Prof. Sarvan,

    Thanks for recalling and citing aspects of our history that can help unite us, make us re-think our rigid and often hateful stances and jolt us enough to envision a better future. Unfortunately, some of the responses here are contrary to this expectation.

    Tamil leaders of yore, were great men who were not trapped in narrow minded nationalism because the British colonial rule, despite its many faults, forged an overarching Ceylonese nationalism. They may have been trapped in the narrow confines of communal values prevalent in their times on subjects such as caste, religion and social equality, but yet were well ahead of their times in matters concerning our country.

    SWRD as a young man was moored in high values. Unfortunately, political opportunism in his old age unmoored him to drift into the murky waters narrow minded national politics. He wanted to compete and succeed among the sharks in the political waters of that day. The Tamil politicians of that age and time, also drifted into similar low grade politics. The results are what we see today.

    Many Tamils and Sinhalese, who are if that vintage or are aware if our political history, to this day mourn what has been Sri Lanka’s loss as Duleeokumar did. Unfortunately, many Tamils and Sinhalese of a younger generations are unaware of the history and social environment he knew. They are victims of our unfortunate political evolution.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 1

      “Cruel Leaders are replaced, only to have new Leaders turn Cruel”
      so said Che Guevara!

      • 1

        That was a good reading of Che Guevera on what became a prison Island for over 6 decades under Castro’s Cuba.


  • 1

    ” Wars kill people, including teachers in their classrooms, nurses in their hospitals, and farmers in their fields. “…… ” They take great care, but mistakes can happen. “

    ” British general Rupert Smith calls “the reality in which the people in the streets and houses and fields – all the people, anywhere – are the battlefield”. The Israelis did not go into Gaza to kill children. ”

    This is what the Guardian (UK-31/07) said about the Gaza quoting a British general. Cameron boasted proudly recently that ” Israel is in the DNA of the Conservative Party” and he has yet to offer a single word of criticism about Israel for what is happening in the Gaza. Yet the exact opposite view was held by Cameron about Sri Lankan war in 2009. Hipocrisy of this degree is extremely rare.

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